Symphonies reserve familiar works for late in the program, as if they aim to make some part of the audience eat their Brussels sprouts before giving satisfaction on why the tickets were bought at all. Not true for Smuin Ballet, which leads with better known works before premiering new works.
This strategy works particularly well when those works include beloved performances such Ma Cong’s paradoxical 2010 “French Twist,” and Michael Smuin’s 1981 “Bouquet,” either of which alone would have made for an incredibly satisfying evening.
Leading with the familiar makes so much sense in dance programs like this. Dance (unlike classical music, which, thanks to Spotify and its ilk, makes the obscure more accessible) remains almost exclusively on stage. In starting with the familiar, Smuin Ballet takes you from that comfortable point of familiarity – and then expands outward, in this case offering up two world premieres, “Maslow” (yes, that Maslow), choreographed by Ben Needham-Wood, and “Broken Open,” choreographed by Amy Seiwart.
“French Twist” opens with smoke and arpeggios. This seductive dreaminess even penetrates the second movement, but dreamy woodwinds yield to more assertive sounds, and the dancers (starting with a group of four men and a woman that morphed into other configurations) respond in kind. The dancers’ sense of motion, vaguely similar to the slightly exaggerated movements of an animated rag doll, paired well with the mechanical sounds of the music, ending as it did with a calliope tune. All of this was periodically punctuated by bits of insouciant puckishness that teased the audience with its cheek.
After a brief intermission, the dancers perform “Bouquet,” choreographed by Michael Smuin, with music taken from Shostakovich’s first and second piano concertos. This dance in two movements (a quartet and a pas de deux) doesn’t leave you with that horrible feeling of missing something happening elsewhere. You can let your eye linger on particular dancers and be captivated by the beauty – not just because the cast is small, but also because other gentle harmonization of movement among all the dancers eliminates that worry from your mind. In Mountain View, “Bouquet” was danced by Erica Chip, with Robert Kretz, Weston Krukow, and Rex Wheeler, for the quartet, and the astonishing Terez Dean and Ben Needham-Wood.
The dancers’ sense of motion, vaguely similar to the slightly exaggerated movements of an animated rag doll, paired well with the mechanical sounds of the music…
“Maslow,” choreographed by Ben Needham-Wood, opens feeling a bit like Masterpiece Theatre, but with Abraham Maslow in a brown suit seated in an easy chair, not entirely unlike the venerable Alistair Cooke. Instead of the majestic trumpets, it’s danced to Ben Stolee’s jazz score, inflected with threads of hiphop. While the dance lends itself to numerous interpretations and story lines, all are best described by looking to the energy of the dancers. Here, the most obvious conclusion, is dance most embodies Maslow’s ideas because Maslow’s notions of self-actualization are manifest in dancer’s body, as on display in this dance.
The evening’s closer – the world premiere of “Broken Open” – was the piece I was most afraid would end, and the piece I most want to see again. Performed by all sixteen Smuin dancers, each clad in a white leotard with zippy bursts of color, this 30 minute dance offered so much to appreciate.
Dancers moved to a composition by Julia Kent – a soaring-melody-line-over-oscillating-cello-drone thing, which was the perfect accompaniment for a work that alternate repetitive motion with displays of unnerving muscularity or, in contrast, effortless fluidity.
Photo credit: Chris Hardy